(photo by Kibiwot Limo)

LINCOLN BLVD — The relocation of a nonprofit devoted to HIV testing and education into the Sunset Park neighborhood has many community members concerned that their safety may be compromised.

Common Ground, a facility that provides education and case management services to HIV positive and negative alike, secured a lease at 2401 Lincoln Blvd., blocks from its former location at 2021 Lincoln Blvd. where it stayed for a decade.

The facility also runs programs for youth and a drop-in center three days a week where young people can meet with therapists and counselors and get educated on HIV, said Executive Director Lisa Fisher.

“It’s to get them healthy and back on their path,” Fisher said. “Youth are another population disproportionately impacted by HIV.”

While few in the neighborhood question the mission, many are unhappy with the presence of the group near their homes.

Residents of Sunset Park packed a meeting Monday night at Olympic High School to protest the move, saying that the placement of the organization near houses and a for-profit pre-school was inappropriate.

Attendees worried that there would be an increase in crime and drug use in the neighborhood, and that the facility’s lack of parking would force homeless adults and teens into the neighborhoods to park or onto sidewalks to congregate.

“I cannot imagine the city in its right mind allowing such a relocation in such close proximity to family residential homes,” wrote resident Tebb Kusserow in a letter. “There is enough going on in the outside world for good, young parents to deal with without this.”

According to Santa Monica Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Richard Lewis, there have been 26 calls for service to Common Ground’s previous facility between 2008 and January 2012.

At least a handful of those were for medical care.

Kathy Mittel, of Mittel’s Art Center which operated next to Common Ground’s old location, begged to differ.

Mittel and other neighboring businesses like the O’Reilly’s Auto Parts next door cited repeated calls to the police department for fights or people panhandling outside their establishments.

“There have been times when it was very scary,” Mittel said. “Has it affected our business over the last 10 years? Definitely.”

Since Common Ground left in December, business has improved, Mittel said.

Common Ground’s new neighbors are fearful that when construction ends and the full panoply of services starts up at the new location in March, they’ll be bombarded by the same problems reported by the residents of Bay Street.

City Hall could not prevent Common Ground from taking root at their new location, but staff commits to taking an active role in negotiations between Common Ground and the neighbors to create a “good neighbor policy,” said Julie Rusk, Human Services manager with City Hall.

Common Ground receives $90,000 a year in grants from City Hall, or approximately 7 percent of its budget. Any organization that receives municipal money has to have one such policy.

“I think in this case we’re going to step in and play a more direct role than we have with other (policies),” Rusk said. “But it’s the responsibility of the organization to really work with neighbors to develop a plan that works.”

Those plans cover hours of operation, design concerns, phone-trees and specific information about policies relating to concerns identified by residents.

Common Ground is committed to working with the neighbors to create a situation that works for everyone, Fisher said.

The site will not offer the needle exchange available at other sites, for instance.

“We’ve talked about controlling the site, additional lighting and putting cameras in the back and in the alley,” Fisher said. “Those are some of the things we’re starting with. We want to hear what other suggestions and ideas there are, and be as accessible as possible.”


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